Crimson Dragon: An Underdog With Wings

How to train your dragoon.

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With so much emphasis being put on open worlds and expansive multiplayer battlefields going into the next generation, the Xbox One is the last place I would expect to see an on-rails game like Crimson Dragon. The genre hasn't seen a wildly popular game since 1997's Star Fox 64, and even in that case, the game had both its predecessor's cache and the lure of the included Rumble Pak peripheral to entice buyers. That's not to say that the genre is devoid of solid, modern games; the last generation alone saw a great port of Rez, a new Sin and Punishment, and Child of Eden. Still, for better or worse, tastes have shifted away from arcade-like experiences. As the bastion of a bygone era, and a standout Japanese launch game in a sea of Western games, Crimson Dragon seems like Microsoft's way of putting modern trends to the test. When contrasted with Call of Duty and Assassin's Creed, it certainly stands out. That said, Crimson Dragon deserves credit, not for what it doesn't do, but for what it does so well.

Indeed, Crimson Dragon is a descendant of the legendary Panzer Dragoon series, and while it's not a direct continuation, Panzer Dragoon creator Yukio Futatsugi sits at the helm of Crimson Dragon's principal developer, Grounding Inc.. Once again, he's directing a game that puts you atop a massive, saddle-backed dragon that fires homing lasers at mutated bugs, lava worms, and, of course, other dragons. Apart from a few free-flying stages, you soar along a predefined path, targeting enemies that pop up, while gently swerving to and fro to avoid incoming fire or obstacles. It's an old formula, but with a slew of modern touches, it holds up really well.

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From the get-go, the world of Draco looks great. You're immediately thrown into the cavernous, fiery depths of the planet's underground, which is teeming with enemies, bursts of lava, and imposing stalactites. Compared to the rather sparse environments of Panzer Dragoon, this density is a welcome addition, making the moment-to-moment action much more engaging and forcing you to barrel roll to avoid head-on collisions. The vast majority of Crimson Dragon's levels follow a similar formula, albeit largely aboveground, but there are a handful of free-flying stages that turn the game on its head, similar to the dungeons in Panzer Dragoon Saga. Unfortunately, the one free-flying stage I played was a bit disorienting. With nothing but the horizon to relate to, I found it difficult to gauge my position relative to other enemies during flybys, but this may have been a fault of the stage itself, rather than the free-flying system at large.

In contrast to the Panzer Dragoon series, you're no longer tied to a sidekick-like dragon the entire time. Instead, Crimson Dragon incorporates a strategic element in giving you a team of dragons to raise and command. Furthermore, each of these dragons can be customized through the use of gene items. It's a bit of a throwback to later Panzer Dragoon games in that respect, but the entire process takes place between stages with a great level of control. With Crimson Dragon's elemental system to contend with, it's important to create a balanced team of dragons to adequately tackle the varied challenges found throughout the game. These challenges can come in the form of a mix of enemies with an affinity to certain elements or variations in size and strength. With more than 170 skills to learn, there are thousands of configurations to create.

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At first, the realm of possibilities seems daunting, but Crimson Dragon's asynchronous co-op allows you to use your friends' dragons in lieu of altering your own. You simply recruit a friendly dragon to tag along as an auto-firing backup. The main player gains a valuable ally, but the supplier of the backup dragon benefits as well, earning experience while fighting in someone else's game. It's easy to recognize how this system might benefit a coordinated group of friends, but it's too early to tell how well this system will work in practice. If none of your friends play Crimson Dragon, you're left with a random selection of strangers' dragons, but at least someone's watching your back.

With its co-op component, dragon customization, and complex environments, Crimson Dragon feels fresh, but underneath it all is a familiar experience for anyone who has played Panzer Dragoon, or any rail shooter, for that matter. For my hour or so with the game, I was pleased with the tight controls, sharp visuals, and the potential that lies in the customization system. In a greater context, what stood out to me the most was Crimson Dragon's unlikely presence in the Xbox One launch lineup. It's not a AAA blockbuster, nor is it a quirky indie game. Simply put, it's a good-looking action game starring dragons, with a dash of character management. It may not be the game that everyone's looking for come launch day, but for anyone who feels uninspired by the more-of-the-same launch lineup Crimson Dragon is a much-needed breath of fresh air.

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